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One area farmer proves just how important networking is for small farmers

Leah Miller, a semi-retired sheep farmer in Holmes County, teaches connecting, networking and facilitating with Leadership Holmes County.

Amber Kanuckel

For farmers it isn’t just the animals, the crops, the land or all of the other factors that go into producing a product that makes a farm successful. It also is about networking, about knowing the right people in the right industries so that groups of farmers can come together to work on larger projects or to meet a set of common goals. That is what Leah Miller, a semi-retired sheep farmer in Holmes County, works to achieve.
 
“That is my primary line of work,” Miller said, “pulling people together, pulling groups together. If someone has a project, a need or has an interest, I try to connect them with other people. I basically work as a connector or a networker. That’s what I teach with Leadership Holmes County: connecting, networking, facilitating, that kind of thing. I’ve done it in agriculture; I’ve done it with economic development.”
 
Miller works primarily with small-scale farmers and has been since 2001. It all started when she began working in the area with grazing, water quality and agricultural economic development.
 
“As I was putting together programs with that project, I started running into different people involved in dairy, and that’s how we got the North Central Dairy Grazing Conference going. I’ve been involved with the Small Farm Institute, which is a nonprofit,” Miller said. “What I did was I started out with the North Central Dairy Grazing group, and then I helped a group of Amish put together the Family Farm Field Day a few years ago along with another up in Kidron. And then about four years ago, I had a group come to me and ask if I would help put together an organics conference.”
 
This conference was just recently held during the early part of November in Mount Hope.
 
All of these organizations that Miller has helped to bring together are run under the Small Farm Institute’s banner.
 
“What I do with all the groups that I work with, we actually create a committee, and then they rotate their members off and on. I use the principles from Leadership Holmes County to help different groups form so that they become self-sustaining. We get them started, and we also work to help empower people to say that you can pull people together and do these kinds of things.”
 
Along with her work as a facilitator, Miller also raises sheep part time. Her small flock contains a mix of Dorset, Polypay and East Friesian breeding stock, breeds that she’s chosen for specific reasons.
 
“I went with the Dorsets because they are good milkers and they are easy care,” Miller said.
 
The Polypay stock was mixed into her bloodlines one year when she couldn’t find a Dorset ram that met her exacting genetic standards.
 
“East Friesians actually add a lot of milk back to the flock. Even though Dorsets milk well, if you add East Friesians to the flock, they are incredible. They are actually a dairy breed of sheep,” she said.
 
Miller also works with organics, not only helping to pull the local organic conference together, but also helping to make connections among dairy farmers interested in raising organic dairies.
 
“We’ve had, since the late 1990s, a group of dairy farmers that wanted and needed to find a market. Organic Valley, in the early 2000s, started working with a dozen or so dairy farms around here. Now almost all — not all but a large number of the dairy farms in the county — are organic, at least among the small farms. When you see 30-100 head, that’s where they are organic because the organic farms can survive and profit in that range.”
 
On her own farm, Miller doesn’t claim to raise 100-percent organic sheep, though she does try to stick to organic practices wherever possible.
 
“It’s very hard because you have to worm periodically. There are people who have done it. It takes a little more attention to the rotation of the animals and to the breed, parasite resistance, that sort of thing. I try to raise organic, but I can’t say that I’m truly 100-percent organic.”
 
When it comes to economic development and future trends within the sheep business, Miller has her finger on the pulse of the industry. She sees a market that is strong with potential to grow, but there is a challenge the industry as a whole needs to overcome.
 
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had a good market the past few years and some really strong buyers,” Miller said. “The main thing, to my mind, is that we’ve got to get more people within the community learning to eat lamb.”
 
“The American Lamb Board has done a lot of research on how to come up with dishes and cuts that meet the American consumers' needs,” Miller said. “Lamb is easy to quick cook and grill, that sort of thing. So if you go on the American Lamb Board website, you’ll see all kinds of recipes and projects in that direction. In addition the American Sheep Improvement Association has spent a lot of dollars on this too.”
 
As someone who is involved with farming groups of all kinds, Miller’s perspective on the recent rise of the lamb industry and the future of this industry is full of insights and hope for the future.
 
“I do see that the sheep industry will continue to grow, partly because we have taken a lot of our farms and divided them into smaller units, and you can manage sheep on these smaller units. They can be profitable. And there are different things you can do. For instance we’re starting to see urban shepherds that are grazing right of ways or high-tension lines, things like that. There are opportunities there that are novel.”
 
All one needs are connections that can help point in the right direction.
 

Published: December 6, 2017
New Article ID: 2017171139992